A pull-up is a compound, pull-type exercise which works a large number of muscles in your back, shoulders, and arms at the same time.

The following table lists information about pull-ups and the muscles that you use when performing pull-ups.

You can perform pull-ups by grasping a sturdy bar with a firm overhand grip and your hands separated by a distance roughly equal to your shoulder width. With your arms straightened, allow your body to hang from the bar. Next, pull yourself upward to the final position where your chest nearly touches the bar and your chin is over the bar.

While you're pulling, focus on keeping your body straight without arching or swinging. Once your chin is over the bar, you can lower yourself to the initial position. Note that while you perform pull-ups, you can either bend your knees and cross your feet or keep your legs straightened so long as your feet don't touch the floor.

It's also a good idea to avoid relaxing your muscles too much while in the initial position. Relaxing too much can place a great deal of stress on your shoulders joints.

As you may have imagined, there is a wide variety of different ways to perform pull-ups. Let's take a look at some of the more popular variations of pull-ups that you may encounter in your gym.

Variations Of Pull-ups: Wide-Grip Pull-ups

Wide-grip pull-ups are used for emphasizing to your lats, instead of working primarily your biceps. The procedure for performing wide-grip pull-ups is similar to the procedure for regular pull-ups discussed above. Grasp a sturdy bar with a firm overhand grip and your hands separated by a distance roughly twice the width of your shoulders.

Separating your hands in this way ensures that you emphasize working your lats. Allow your body to hang from the bar with your arms straightened, and then pull yourself upward so that your chest nearly touches the bar and your chin is over the bar. When you perform wide-grip pull-ups, it's helpful to focus on using your lats to pull your elbows downward toward your ribcage.

Also, focus on keeping your body straight without arching or swinging throughout the pull. Once your lats are completely contracted and your chin is over the bar, you can lower yourself to the initial position. As with regular pull-ups, you can either bend your knees and cross your feet or keep your legs straightened.

Variations Of Pull-ups: Close-Grip Pull-ups

Close-grip pull-ups is another great variation of pull-ups which emphasizes your lower lats. You can perform close-grip pull-ups by grasping a sturdy bar with a firm overhand grip and your hands separated by about 6-8 inches. The narrow separation between your hands ensures that you emphasize your lower lats during the exercise.

The initial position for close-grip pull-ups is hanging from the bar with your arms straightened. To perform a close-grip pull-up, pull yourself upward so that your chin is over the bar and your hands nearly touch your chest, and then lower yourself back to the initial position.

During your ascent, focus on contracting your lats and be careful not to swing your body or lean too far backwards.

Variations Of Pull-ups: Underhand-Grip Pull-ups/Chins

Just as you can emphasize your lats by varying your grip separation during wide-grip and close-grip pull-ups, you can alternatively emphasize your biceps by using underhand-grip pull-ups, also referred to as "chin-ups or just "chins." Chins are performed with an underhand, reverse-grip where the palms of your hands are facing you during the exercise.

To perform a chin-up, grasp the bar with a reverse grip and about 6-8 inches of separation between your hands. Allow yourself to hang in the initial position with your arms straightened. It's a good idea to avoid relaxing your muscles too much while in the initial position. Relaxing too much can place a great deal of stress on your shoulders joints.

While focusing your attention on your biceps, lats, and back muscles, pull yourself up and try to touch either your chin or upper chest to the bar. Once your reach the final position, you can slowly return to the initial position. As with all forms of pull-ups, you can keep your legs straight or bent and crossed throughout the exercise, and you should avoid swinging back and forth.

Variations Of Pull-ups: Gorilla Chin/Crunch

Another interesting variation of pull-ups is the gorilla chin/crunch; it emphasizes your biceps and your abdominals! The initial position of the gorilla chin/crunch is just like a regular chin, but with your knees bent at a 90-degree angle and your hands positioned about 12-inches apart. Performing a gorilla chin/crunch is like doing a chin-up and a crunch at the same time.

You begin by simultaneously pulling yourself up with your arms, chin-up style, and bringing your knees up toward your chest. When you reach the final position, you will have finished the chin and the crunch at the same time.

In the final position, your nose will be close to the bar and your knees will be pulled up to your chest. Next, you can simultaneously lower yourself and let you knees move away from your chest to return to the initial position.

When Bodyweight Is Not Enough

As you may have noticed, the resistance you use during pull-ups is provided by your bodyweight. As you gain strength, however, you'll likely need more resistance than bodyweight alone. A solution to this problem is to suspend weight plates from your waist by using a dipping belt.

You can use the dipping belt by placing it around your waist and then passing the clasp and chain through the ring on the opposite end of the belt. Pulling the chain tightens the belt around your waist.

Next, pass the clasp and chain through one or more weight plates and then fasten the clasp onto the ring that the other end of the chain is attached to.

You'll notice that the weight of the plates keeps the belt tightened around your waist. You can now carefully walk over to the chinning bar and perform some weighted chins or pull-ups.

When Bodyweight Is Too Much

Some trainees may not yet have enough strength to support their bodyweight from the chinning bar, or cannot perform the desired number of repetitions. In this case, performing Pulldowns are a great way to gain the benefits of performing pull-ups until the trainee is strong enough to perform regular pull-ups.

Performing pull-downs is very similar to performing pull-ups, with the exception that with pull-downs you use a lat pull-down machine or a high pulley with a pull-down bar attached to the cable. You can perform pull-downs by positioning your knees snugly under the kneepads of the pull-down machine, grasping the pull-down bar with a roughly shoulder-width grip, and allowing your arms to straighten.

Next, pull the bar downward to the final position where the bar nearly touches your chest. While you're pulling, focus on keeping your body straight without arching your back, swinging back and forth, or leaning too far backward. Once the bar is nearly toughing your chest, you can allow the bar to slowly rise upward until you're in the initial position.

As with pull-ups, there are similar variations of pull-downs that you can perform to bring greater emphasis to particular muscles. The variations of pull-downs are similar to the variations of Pull-ups discussed above, with the primary exception being that you generally begin by positioning your legs snugly under the kneepads of a pull-down machine and you use a pull-down bar.

If you really want to work your lats, then you might consider performing full range-of-motion pull-downs. You can perform this variation of pull-downs by sitting on a high bench or standing and grasping a pair of stirrup cables that are attached to two high pulleys. Be certain to grasp the stirrup cables with opposite hands so that your arms are crossed in front of you and your palms are facing forward.

While keeping your chest up and maintaining a slight arch in your lower back, use your lats to pull your elbows toward your ribcage. While you're pulling your elbows downward, rotate your hands so that the palms of your hands are facing each other when you reach the final position.

Note that with full range-of-motion pull-downs, your range of motion will be along an arc, unlike regular Pulldowns where your range of motion is generally straight up and down.

Incorporating Pull-ups And Pulldowns Into Your Training

Now that you know how to perform various forms of pull-ups and pull-downs, let's take a look at some ways to incorporate them into your training.

Since pull-ups generally work the muscles in your back, rear shoulders, and arms, it's a good idea to combine pull-ups with pushing exercises that train muscles that work in opposition to the back, rear shoulders, and biceps. For example, one choice is to combine pull-ups with dips because they generally train the chest, triceps, and front shoulders.

Another option is to combine Pull-ups with different types of bench presses, which also work the chest, triceps, and front shoulders. Following is one example of a full-body routine which nests wide-grip pull-downs between incline bench press and dips.

  • Squat
  • Leg Curl
  • Inclined Bench Press
  • Wide Grip Pulldowns
  • Dips
  • One-Arm Rows
  • Inclined Hammer Curls
  • Lying Triceps Extensions
  • Shrugs
  • Abdominal Crunches

Note that the back, rear shoulders, and biceps are trained by the one-arm rows, too. Because of this, the wide-grip pull-downs are followed by the dips, which work the chest, triceps, and front shoulders. Arranging the exercises in this way ensures that the back, biceps, and rear shoulders get a break before being worked again with one-arm rows.

Now let's take a look at a couple of abbreviated routine that includes variations of pull-ups. The following routine includes wide-grip pull-ups to emphasize the lats.

  • Squat
  • Leg Curl
  • Bench Press
  • Wide-Grip Pull-ups
  • Close-Grip Bench Press
  • Barbell Curls
  • Shrugs

This is a highly abbreviated routine that affords more time for greater training volume. Note that the close-grip bench press is used to train the triceps. Following is another, similar routine that also allows more time for greater training volume.

  • Squat
  • Stiff-Leg Deadlift
  • Bench Press
  • Chins
  • Shoulder Press
  • Bent Over Rows
  • Shrugs

As you can see, this routine has no direct arm work. Rather, the arms are trained through the use of heavy compound exercises. Notice that chins are used in this routine because they work the biceps as well as the lats.

Another popular approach is to select alternating exercises that are performed every other workout day. For example, you might choose the following alternatives for a full-body workout.

  1. Squat

  2. Leg Curl

  3. Inc. Bench Press

  4. Chins

  5. Rear Delts

  6. Shrugs

  7. Curls

  8. Triceps Extensions

  9. Calf Raise

  10. Leg Press

  11. Leg Curl

  12. Dips

  13. Rows

  14. Rear Delts

  15. Shrugs

  16. Curls

  17. Triceps Extensions

  18. Calf Raise

In this routine, exercises A are performed on one workout day, exercises B are performed on the next workout day, and so on. As you can see, chins are alternated with rows, and incline bench presses are alternated with dips.

Still, another popular idea is to split your training into push exercises and pull exercises. With this approach, muscles that push (i.e., chest, triceps, and front shoulders) and muscles that pull (i.e., back, biceps, and rear shoulders) are trained on different workout days. Following is a group of upper-body exercises that alternate push and pull exercises.

Push

  1. Bench Press
  2. Dips
  3. Triceps Extensions

Pull

  1. Chins
  2. Rows
  3. Bicep Curls

Workout A includes bench press and dips, both of which are compound pushing exercises, and Workout B includes chins and rows, both of which are compound pulling exercises. Triceps extensions and bicep curls are isolation exercises that are thrown in for a little extra arm work.

All of the above routines are essentially full-body routines. Many lifters prefer, however, to split up their training so that different body parts can be trained on different workout days. Splitting up your training enables you to more thoroughly concentrate on specific muscle groups with more exercises and/or more training volume, as well as giving those muscle groups more recovery time than would be otherwise possible.

Following is one example of 3-way split, wherein different body parts are trained on three different workout day each week.

Monday

Chest

  • Bench Press Dips
  • Pec Deck
  • Shoulders
  • Shoulder Press
  • Lateral Raise
  • Rear Delt Raise
  • Triceps
  • Pushdowns
  • Extensions

Wednesday

Back

  • Wide-Grip Pull-ups
  • Rows
  • Biceps
  • Dumbbell Curls
  • Preacher Curls
  • Abdominals
  • Crunches

Friday

Legs

  • Squats
  • Leg Press
  • Stiff-Leg Deadlifts
  • Traps
  • Shrugs
  • Calves
  • Calf Raise

As you can see, chest, shoulders, and triceps are trained on Mondays; back, biceps, and abdominals are trained on Wednesdays; and legs, traps, and calves are trained on Fridays. Notice that on Wednesdays, wide-grip pull-ups are used to emphasize the lats and dumbbell curls are used for the biceps.

Now let's take a look at a 4-way split routine. The following split utilizes all of the same exercises as the above 3-way split, but the exercises are arranged on four different training days.

Monday

Legs

  • Squats
  • Leg Press
  • Stiff-Leg Deadlifts
  • Leg Curls
  • Calf Raise

Tuesday

Chest/Triceps

  • Inclined Bench Press
  • Dips
  • Pec Deck
  • Triceps Pushdowns
  • Triceps Extensions

Thursday

Back/Biceps

  • Wide-Grip Pull-ups
  • Rows
  • Dumbbell Curls
  • Preacher Curls
  • Abdominal Crunches

Friday

Shoulders/Traps

  • Shoulder Press
  • Lateral Raise
  • Rear Delt Raise
  • Shrugs

As you can see, with this 4-way split the legs and shoulders have their own training days, and wide-grip pull-downs are trained on back/biceps day. This routine could be used when you want to perform more training volume for each muscle group. Following along these lines, you might want to split things up even more. For instance, you might want to use a 5-way split routine to train more often, but spend less time during each workout.

On the other hand, you might want to add more training volume for each muscle group. Following is one example of a 5-way split routine which uses the same exercises as the above routines, but arranged into five training days.

Monday

Legs

  • Squats
  • Leg Press
  • Stiff-Leg Deadlifts
  • Leg Curls

Tuesday

Chest/Abs

  • Inclined Bench Press
  • Dips
  • Pec Deck
  • Abdominal Crunches

Wednesday

Back/Traps

  • Wide-Grip Pull-ups
  • Rows
  • Shrugs

Thursday

Shoulders/Calves

  • Shoulder Press
  • Lateral Raise
  • Rear Delt Raise
  • Calf Raise

Friday

Arms

  • Triceps Pushdowns
  • Triceps Extensions
  • Dumbbell Curls
  • Preacher Curls

The primary difference in this example is that the arms now are trained on their own workday day. You'll also notice that the calves have been placed after the shoulder exercises, and the Shrugs are placed after the Wide-Grip Pull-ups and Rows.

Alternatives To Performing Pull-ups

Of course, pull-ups aren't for everyone. Trainees having existing shoulder pathology may find that some variations of pull-ups are painful. As a rule, any exercise which causes pain beyond normal muscle soreness should be discontinued, and a qualified health care professional should be consulted.

If you cannot, or just don't want to perform pull-ups, or any of the variations of pull-ups, any of the following exercises can be used to train the lats, biceps, and rear shoulders.

Lats Exercises

  • Low Pulley Rows
  • Seated Rows
  • One-Arm Rows
  • Pullovers

Biceps Exercises

  • Barbell Curls
  • Preacher Curls
  • Dumbbell Curls
  • Inclined Dumbbell Curls
  • Concentration Curls

Rear Shoulder Exercises

  • Bent Over Rows
  • Low Pulley Rows
  • Seated Rows
  • One-Arm Rows
  • Rear Deltoid Raises

Be sure to also check out:

Exercise Of The Week: Dips!

About the Author

Charles Ridgely

Charles Ridgely

Charles Ridgely is a physicist currently applying his research skills to the field of bodybuilding and is currently studying to become certified by the ISSA.

View all articles by this author